Longform

Teachers fight back against Denver Public Schools in court

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And the problem persisted. There were 689 RIBs in the 2010-2011 school year, according to DPS statistics, and 667 RIBs the following year. In the 2012-2013 school year, that number increased to 750. So far, this year, DPS reports 339 RIBs.

Of all those RIBed teachers, DPS says it placed 296 in temporary positions while they looked for jobs. Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, noticed a pattern: DPS was increasingly placing teachers in positions that were not in their area of expertise, he says, such as a first-grade teacher being put in a high school. "What we see are not necessarily good matches," Roman says. "It's almost like setting up people not to succeed."

The following plaintiffs experienced just that.

• Michelle Montoya, now 48, was RIBed in September 2010. At the time, she was the student advisor in charge of discipline at Trevista at Horace Mann, an elementary and middle school in a tough northwest Denver neighborhood. In Montoya's second year, she and the principal clashed over the use of detentions and suspensions, which the district was under pressure to reduce. At the beginning of Montoya's third year, the principal hired a new school counselor and a new assistant principal, who began leaving Montoya out of discipline decisions. The principal soon told her that her position was no longer needed; she was being RIBed.

Montoya took a semester-long leave of absence and was then placed in a temporary position as an English teacher at George Washington High School. She'd never taught high school before but felt she did well. However, by the end of the school year, Montoya had yet to find a mutual-consent position, despite applying for hundreds of jobs.

In the fall of 2011, Montoya went on full-time unpaid leave. She began receiving unemployment and started a used-clothing-and-antiques business to keep afloat.

Finally, in August 2012, she landed a teaching position at CEC Middle College, a career and technical high school in DPS. Montoya was thrilled. But she wonders whether the principal knew her situation. "I don't know if he would have hired me if he knew that I was on unpaid leave," she says. "I think there was something that was out there that was telling principals to not hire [tenured] teachers who'd been placed on leave. I think there's a stigma attached to it, like I'm a bad teacher. And that's not the case."

• Paula Scena, now 53, actually volunteered to be RIBed. In February 2011, her principal at Contemporary Learning Academy, a DPS high school for at-risk kids, told the four science teachers that due to a drop in enrollment, one of them had to go. Scena took one for the team, figuring it'd be easy to find another position. It wasn't. She only got two interviews, one of which resulted in her being hired at Trevista. But the position didn't last long. In November 2011, three months after she started, the teachers learned that the low-scoring school was being "turned around" and that they had to re-apply for their jobs. The majority were not rehired, including Scena.

Scena applied for about a hundred jobs but was unable to find one. So in the fall of 2012, she was placed as a "teacher on special assignment," or TOSA. For an entire year, she and nine other RIBed teachers went from one southeast Denver elementary school to the next, substitute teaching. She felt like she and the other TOSAs served as a warning to teachers who still had jobs: "This could happen to you."

Facing the possibility of unpaid leave, Scena was considering buying her way into early retirement when, in August 2013, she got a call from Archuleta Elementary. One of the school's Teach for America hires hadn't shown up, and there was an open fifth-grade position. Scena got the job. Still, she feels she was mistreated. "You feel used and discarded," she says.

• Milanne Kolquist, now 67, was among six teachers RIBed in February 2012 at Merrill Middle School, where she taught English as a Second Language. Kolquist became a teacher later in life and was hired at Merrill in 2009. In her time there, she earned nonprobationary status as well as bonuses because her students did so well.

After applying to about 150 positions with no success, Kolquist was placed at Marrama Elementary in the fall of 2012. But she wasn't licensed to teach elementary school, so the principal had her put up bulletin boards, make copies and cut out flash cards. Kolquist was miserable and complained to the DCTA, which convinced DPS to switch her placement to Noel Community Arts School, a middle and high school.

Kolquist kept looking for jobs and got a few interviews. But when she asked the principals at Merrill and Noel for letters of recommendation, she says, they ignored her requests. Although she had a file full of glowing references from prior principals and colleagues, she had nothing from her most recent positions. "They claim that there's no stigma attached to being RIBed, but you go to apply for a job and you have no reference," Kolquist says. "It doesn't matter how many great things you can say and show about yourself. If you don't have that recommendation, they're not interested."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar